An angelic-looking girl beams out from a series of pictures hanging on a wall inside the law enforcement complex in Monroe.
She looks slightly different in all three pictures, a testament to the rapid changes of early childhood. But the big smile is the same.
A placard above the photos reads: "In memory of Nevaeh Buchanan." Below is another: "Never forgotten."
If you study the name for a moment, you might notice that her first name is heaven spelled backward.
For those who know the story of the 5-year-old girl, the photo on the left is haunting. Nevaeh is riding a tricycle and holding a sign that reads "May."
It is the tricycle she was riding in May 2009, when she disappeared, uniting neighbors and strangers in the common goal of finding that little girl with a big smile.
Gone Without a Trace: May 24, 2009
May 24, 2009, was a beautiful spring day in Monroe, Mich. Early morning temperatures started in the low 60s. By late afternoon, the day topped out at a high of 72. Windows were open throughout the Charlotte Arms apartment complex on North Macomb Street.
Nevaeh Buchanan was in and out of apartments with other children, but she was seen playing outside. At one point, she was near a playground behind the complex. There was a hole in a fence allowing easy access for the apartment kids to the playground.
Nevaeh's mother, Jennifer, believed her daughter was playing in a neighbor's unit. When a child told her that Nevaeh was actually outside playing, Jennifer began searching for her daughter around 8 p.m. She was nowhere to be found. 911 was called. An Amber Alert was issued by late evening.
Over the ensuing days, hundreds of local, state, and federal law enforcement officers combed through the apartment complex and nearby areas looking for clues. Helicopters zipped across the skies and large search parties of concerned citizens scoured nearby fields.
Rumors grew by the day. At one point, two children reportedly told police that Nevaeh was stabbed and dragged into nearby woods. Convicted sex offenders George Kennedy, Roy Smith and James Easter were declared persons of interest by police because of their pasts and because of previous relationships with Nevaeh's mother. None of the three has been charged in the girl's murder.
In a jailhouse interview with The Blade's Mark Reiter after Nevaeh's disappearance, Kennedy professed his innocence.
"I didn't take her and I definitely didn't kill her," he told Reiter, denying he knew who might be involved. "I have no clue. I wish that I did have some clue. I am hoping that she ain't dead. I still got my fingers crossed that they are going to find her alive."
The entire community crossed its fingers, but it was only a matter of time before their worst fears were realized.
A Grisly Find: June 4, 2009
On the morning of June 4, 2009, Guy Bickley and his father, Lowell, found a spot alongside the River Raisin, near Dixon Road in Raisinville Township, where they could sit and cast their fishing lines.
There were some rocks on which they could sit and a concrete block that they could walk over to settle in another location. At one point, Bickley stumbled on the concrete and a piece of it gave way.
He later told reporters he smelled what he thought was dead fish. But he then saw human flesh.
After 11 days of frantic searching, Nevaeh had been found.
On June 5, Dr. Carl Schmidt of the Wayne County Medical Examiner's Office conducted the autopsy on the 5-year-old. He ruled that "her death was caused by aspiration of fine particulate matter (dirt)."
The report was obtained by 11 Investigates.
Nevaeh's body was found face down and the concrete was poured over her.
In his summary, Dr. Schmidt provided a chilling closing statement when describing how the child choked to death on dirt:
"Whether this resulted from another person forcibly pressing this child's face into dirt or whether she was buried alive cannot be determined."
12 Years Gone By: No Answers
The piece of land where Nevaeh was found is no longer beside the River Raisin. It has been carved away in an attempt to erase the visual evidence of the grisly murder that occurred on it.
There is still the path that fishermen would take 12 years ago. Fight your way through brush, you can make your way to the water.
By the roadway, a wooden cross has been erected, Nevaeh's name engraved in it. A variety of stuffed animals, including a giant dog and teddy bear, stand guard on the nearby grounds.
It's peaceful and desolate. It's easy to see how a killer might believe the land would never give up his secrets.
Forty-five minutes away, Risa Smith shakes her head.
"After 10 years, I simply can't understand how anybody could abduct and murder a 5-year-old child. This child cannot fight for themselves. She cannot defend herself."
In multiple media interviews, Smith has provided quotes about the case. She is a distant cousin to Nevaeh, so she's family, though not particularly close to either Nevaeh's mother or father.
She was on site on Day 1 searching for the little girl, distraught by the thought of how terrified she would have been.
She has been relentless in pursuing justice. She lugs binders of notes into the interview, apologizing that she wasn't able to bring ALL of her notes. The binders contain notes on "suspects," timelines, even interviews that she and a partner conducted with potential witnesses.
"A big portion of my life in the last 10 years has been devoted to trying to get justice for Nevaeh," she says. "I was in college going for a bachelor's degree in business administration. I changed that up and got an associate's degree in business administration and a bachelor's in criminal justice. So it totally changed my path in life."
Even though much of the public's scrutiny has focused on Smith, Kennedy and Easter, Smith isn't so sure the answer is that simple. But she believes that Nevaeh likely knew her abductor.
"Everyone that we talked to said she was very shy and she would not go up to someone she did not know," she says. "No one we talked to said they heard a kid crying or screaming or asking for help. Did she know this person and that's why she willingly went? DID she willingly go? Nobody knows that."
As far as a theory, despite all her research, she just isn't sure.
"I believe that there is a reason that she was taken. I believe that. And, obviously, someone knows that reason."
PHOTOS | Remembering Nevaeh Buchanan
The Investigators: An Emotional Impact
Monroe County Sheriff Troy Goodnough has only been in office since the beginning of the year, but he has been with the department in some capacity for more than 30 years.
He knows the emotional impact that Nevaeh's murder had on the community.
"We're a community that doesn't have a lot of heinous crimes or a lot of murders. It affected a lot of people, but it really impacted our community because we are thought of as a tranquil community. Things happen here, but not to that level."
But it also impacted the men on the force.
"The detectives that were on this case had children at or near her age when this happened, and I'm confident it had a blow on them," he says. "We take every crime serious here at the sheriff's office, but I can tell you that the impact that this had on the emotional well-being of our organization was significant."
The blow to the entire community's psyche is why he says the case became a major focus when he took office.
"When I came in, I said we really need to start applying all available resources ... to take this investigation and look at it from A to Z with a microscopic lens. I'm not saying anyone did anything wrong, but we all know it's easy to miss something," he says.
"At any given time, there could be one or five detectives analyzing that data that was collected, the interviews that were conducted. We're dissecting this investigation into very small parts, and we're tackling each part independently."
At multiple points in the interview, Goodnough expressed optimism, even high confidence, that the case could soon be solved.
Part of his confidence comes from the work of Mike Preadmore, who was recently promoted to detective sergeant. He and his team have embraced the latest technology in crime fighting, including advanced DNA testing and other tools.
"We're looking at everything, new technology, including the latest and greatest," Goodnough says, before telling his interviewer, "We just don't want to share that playbook with you."
New Questions: Witness to an Event Speaks
During our look into the case, 11 Investigates uncovered a witness to an event that was previously unknown to detectives.
"The day before she went missing, Nevaeh was looking at different vehicles in the parking lot. There was this black vehicle that she was trying to let air out of its tire. I told her mom, and I think she got in trouble."
We are not naming the woman to protect her identity. But she said she had not previously seen that vehicle and that it remained in the lot until the next day - the day that Nevaeh disappeared.
Her story was interesting because of a report obtained by 11 Investigates from an incident that happened on May 23, 2009, at the Greenwycke Commons, an apartment building 3.2 miles from Charlotte Arms.
In that incident, two children reported that a man had exposed himself to them near a dumpster and, holding his penis, asked them if they "had ever seen one of these before."
The man was driving a black Grand Prix. A partial plate description eventually led investigators to a man who later pleaded guilty to obscene conduct.
During the investigation into the exposure incident, investigators interviewed the man's mother and father, who told police that their son would get up in the morning, take a shower, then not return until late at night. They also said he drove a black car, fished at various spots around Monroe, and was a friend of Smith - the sex offender who was a friend of Nevaeh's mother.
There was never a car that was identified as a suspicious vehicle in Nevaeh's case, but after 11 Investigates told detectives about the interview with the apartment occupant who said that the girl was tampering with a black vehicle, investigators immediately reached out to the woman and interviewed her.
A Plea for Help: Little Information, Big Impact
Tips continue to come in on this case. Sheriff Goodnough is quick to point out that it has never gone "cold." There continue to be leads to pursue. He also reminds people that there is still a substantial amount of reward money available for helping to solve the murder.
Anyone with information can call the detective's bureau at 734-240-7530 or CrimeStoppers at 1-800-773-2587.
"If somebody has some information, regardless how minimal they may view it, please contact us here at the sheriff's office. Some people might say, 'I know police are doing something else' or 'I don't know that this has any connection to the crime.' Let our detectives determine if it has a nexus or not," Goodnough says.
"It's amazing what just a little piece of information can do to lead us in a direction that I'm confident will be a very favorable outcome."
Not Forgotten: Nevaeh Amyah Buchanan
Nevaeh Amyah Buchanan would have turned 17 on Feb. 3.
She is buried in Monroe's Saint Joseph Cemetery. An inscription on her gravestone declares her "Monroe's little angel."
Her funeral procession in June 2009 was greeted by hundreds of community members, who lined the streets to pay their respects or release balloons.
Occasionally, people go to her gravesite to leave little items. It's been 12 years, but any longtime resident in the area remembers the two-week period when national media and many other outsiders converged on southeastern Michigan after Nevaeh's disappearance.
"It drives me insane when I bring up Nevaeh or someone calls me about her and says, 'that was the girl buried by the river.' Don't refer to her as the girl by the river. She was 5 and she had a life," Smith says.
"You have to wonder when she turned 16, would she have been biting at the bit to get her driver's license? Would she have been excelling in high school? It's things we'll never know. I feel like the only thing we have left to give her is justice, and I will probably fight for that until my last breath."